• Kayte Thomas

Holiday Grinch photos and your child

Surely you’ve seen the viral posts going around social media of kids all dressed up for Christmas photos lately, where the children are eagerly posing for their photos and then suddenly out of nowhere….there’s a Grinch behind them. The initial scenes are so lovely, and they look really serene and adorable and then slowly this Grinch comes into the frame until he is right behind the child. Waiting. Lurking. Anticipating a response. It takes them a moment to process it all while they realize that there’s something terrifying behind them and run off screaming and crying. And the camera captures it all for the amusement of the internet.

Excuse the profanity if that bothers you but, what the fuck folks? I have seen this shared more times than I can count – and with more children than I can count, which means that people are replicating this with their own children because several people think this is a good idea. Again to you I say, what the fuck?! (Also, this is my blog, so if swearing bothers you please read here, here, here, and here to understand why a dislike of swearing is sexist classist nonsense before even commenting on it.) Now, let’s get to the point. Also, note that I will not perpetuate the sharing of images of traumatized children so here is Cindy Lou Who is so very bravely standing up to the Grinch instead. And note that if a child can do this, they are not traumatized and therefore photographic opportunities are acceptable. Note the difference between a child who is okay with being exposed to a creature and a child who is terrified. We do not terrify our children for kodak moments.

As a trauma professional, I am absolutely horrified by these viral shares. They are not funny. They are not cute. They are not amusing. What they are is a permanently visible indication of both poor parenting judgment and lack of understanding of the impact of trauma. So let me help you understand why traumatizing your child is never funny.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, my focus as a trauma professional is on attachment and connection. Those are really fundamental components of healthy development. If your child has a healthy attachment to you, they trust that you will act in their best interest, that you will meet their needs, and that you will keep them safe. This is the basis of the parent-child bond. This is the basis upon which a child orients their world: either, the world is a safe place for them because they know someone is ensuring their safety, or it is not (note: this is a simplified version, but essentially the point here).

Also, connection cannot occur where fear exists. Connection happens with trust, bonding, love, mutual respect, and all the other good safe and secure dynamics that can exist between two people. When you insert fear into a relationship – for laughs no less – you destroy the opportunity for connection. When you intentionally set your child up to be terrorized during a photo shoot, you are actively creating disconnection. And note, if you pretend like everything is okay afterwards and comfort them as if it is no big deal, you are actually gaslighting your child which is abusive as well.

Therefore, by purposely exposing your child – a child, someone who is inherently vulnerable and reliant on you for safety and protection – to be in a position to experience fear where they believe they should be trusting you, you are creating trauma in your child. And trauma has significant ramifications throughout the lifespan. Trauma is correlated with worsened mental health outcomes including but not limited to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD; poor physical outcomes including but not limited to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, cancer, obesity and more; and poor quality of life ranging from interpersonal problems to employment problems. Trauma is no joke. It is not a laughing matter. Ever.

Trauma is not funny if your child is in a pretty dress. Trauma is not funny if there are siblings who can be together to experience it simultaneously. Trauma is not funny if you paid for an expensive photographer to capture it. Trauma is not funny if your family liked to play pranks on you and you think this is normal (it’s not). Trauma is not funny if it only happened once. Trauma is not funny if it makes you laugh. Trauma is not funny if it gets you “likes” on social media.

Here’s the thing though, trauma is preventable and trauma can be healed. What does this mean for you, the person reading this currently? It means 1) don’t share those awful photos/videos of kids being ambushed by Grinches 2) don’t take those awful photos/videos of your child but 3) if you have shared – or if you did this to your child – apologize. There is so much power in an apology, because it models vulnerability and accountability. Adults (and parents) make mistakes sometimes; of course, because this is part of being human. What matters is how we model re-connection after a mistake was made. This means that demonstrating the ability to say “hey, this was wrong and I shouldn’t have done it” is so very powerful and healing. The actions of apologizing and being vulnerable quite literally repairs the lost connection with a child and also teaches them how to handle their own mistakes in the future.

This holiday season, remember that the reason to celebrate is rooted in joy, love, family, and connection. The memories you retain from this time should be reflective of that. Also, it is worth noting that during a pandemic, these children are already stressed and their nervous systems are already primed for distress by being on edge with all of the changes they have experienced. Adding trauma into that is literally the same as pouring gasoline on a fire – you do not want to take these photos this year (not that you should be taking them ever). Trauma when compounded with other trauma creates worse outcomes and our job/goal right now – for all of us, really, whether we are parents or just folks sharing these images – is to protect our children during this time.

I cannot stress this enough. I do not have a feel-good message for you this week, because my message is “stop hurting your kids for fun”. Literally, stop hurting your kids and thinking it is funny. Focus instead of building moments of connection and trust, creating memories without fear, and ensuring that childhood remains sacred during a year of unprecedented upheaval and distress.

Love each other enough to realize that trauma is not funny.

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